Burke says he definitely got the glow. “The first time I took it, I was working on a business plan. I had to juggle multiple contingencies in my head, and for some reason a tree with branches jumped into my head. I was able to place each contingency on a branch, retract and go back to the trunk, and in this visual way I was able to juggle more information.”
None of that has kept entrepreneurs and their customers from experimenting and buying into the business of magic pills, however. In 2015 alone, the nootropics business raked in over $1 billion dollars, and web sites like the nootropics subreddit, the Bluelight forums, and Bulletproof Exec are popular and packed with people looking for easy ways to boost their mental performance. Still, this bizarre, Philip K. Dick-esque world of smart drugs is a tough pill to swallow. To dive into the topic and explain, I spoke to Kamal Patel, Director of evidence-based medical database Examine.com, and even tried a few commercially-available nootropics myself.
A “smart pill” is a drug that increases the cognitive ability of anyone taking it, whether the user is cognitively impaired or normal. The Romanian neuroscientist Corneliu Giurgea is often credited with first proposing, in the 1960s, that smart pills should be developed to increase the intelligence of the general population (see Giurgea, 1984). He is quoted as saying, “Man is not going to wait passively for millions of years before evolution offers him a better brain” (Gazzaniga, 2005, p. 71). In their best-selling book, Smart Drugs and Nutrients, Dean and Morgenthaler (1990) reviewed a large number of substances that have been used by healthy individuals with the goal of increasing cognitive ability. These include synthetic and natural products that affect neurotransmitter levels, neurogenesis, and blood flow to the brain. Although many of these substances have their adherents, none have become widely used. Caffeine and nicotine may be exceptions to this generalization, as one motivation among many for their use is cognitive enhancement (Julien, 2001).
I tried taking whole pills at 1 and 3 AM. I felt kind of bushed at 9 AM after all the reading, and the 50 minute nap didn’t help much - I was sleep only around 10 minutes and spent most of it thinking or meditation. Just as well the 3D driver is still broken; I doubt the scores would be reasonable. Began to perk up again past 10 AM, then felt more bushed at 1 PM, and so on throughout the day; kind of gave up and began watching & finishing anime (Amagami and Voices of a Distant Star) for the rest of the day with occasional reading breaks (eg. to start James C. Scotts Seeing Like A State, which is as described so far). As expected from the low quality of the day, the recovery sleep was bigger than before: a full 10 hours rather than 9:40; the next day, I slept a normal 8:50, and the following day ~8:20 (woken up early); 10:20 (slept in); 8:44; 8:18 (▁▇▁▁). It will be interesting to see whether my excess sleep remains in the hour range for ’good modafinil nights and two hours for bad modafinil nights.
Caffeine (Examine.com; FDA adverse events) is of course the most famous stimulant around. But consuming 200mg or more a day, I have discovered the downside: it is addictive and has a nasty withdrawal - headaches, decreased motivation, apathy, and general unhappiness. (It’s a little amusing to read academic descriptions of caffeine addiction9; if caffeine were a new drug, I wonder what Schedule it would be in and if people might be even more leery of it than modafinil.) Further, in some ways, aside from the ubiquitous placebo effect, caffeine combines a mix of weak performance benefits (Lorist & Snel 2008, Nehlig 2010) with some possible decrements, anecdotally and scientifically:
If you want to make sure that whatever you’re taking is safe, search for nootropics that have been backed by clinical trials and that have been around long enough for any potential warning signs about that specific nootropic to begin surfacing. There are supplements and nootropics that have been tested in a clinical setting, so there are options out there.
That said, there are plenty of studies out there that point to its benefits. One study, published in the British Journal of Pharmacology, suggests brain function in elderly patients can be greatly improved after regular dosing with Piracetam. Another study, published in the journal Psychopharmacology, found that Piracetam improved memory in most adult volunteers. And another, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychopharmacology, suggests it can help students, especially dyslexic students, improve their nonverbal learning skills, like reading ability and reading comprehension. Basically, researchers know it has an effect, but they don’t know what or how, and pinning it down requires additional research.
Organizations, and even entire countries, are struggling with “always working” cultures. Germany and France have adopted rules to stop employees from reading and responding to email after work hours. Several companies have explored banning after-hours email; when one Italian company banned all email for one week, stress levels dropped among employees. This is not a great surprise: A Gallup study found that among those who frequently check email after working hours, about half report having a lot of stress.
And there are other uses that may make us uncomfortable. The military is interested in modafinil as a drug to maintain combat alertness. A drug such as propranolol could be used to protect soldiers from the horrors of war. That could be considered a good thing – post-traumatic stress disorder is common in soldiers. But the notion of troops being unaffected by their experiences makes many feel uneasy.
(We already saw that too much iodine could poison both adults and children, and of course too little does not help much - iodine would seem to follow a U-curve like most supplements.) The listed doses at iherb.com often are ridiculously large: 10-50mg! These are doses that seems to actually be dangerous for long-term consumption, and I believe these are doses that are designed to completely suffocate the thyroid gland and prevent it from absorbing any more iodine - which is useful as a short-term radioactive fallout prophylactic, but quite useless from a supplementation standpoint. Fortunately, there are available doses at Fitzgerald 2012’s exact dose, which is roughly the daily RDA: 0.15mg. Even the contrarian materials seem to focus on a modest doubling or tripling of the existing RDA, so the range seems relatively narrow. I’m fairly confident I won’t overshoot if I go with 0.15-1mg, so let’s call this 90%.
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But, if we find in 10 or 20 years that the drugs don't do damage, what are the benefits? These are stimulants that help with concentration. College students take such drugs to pass tests; graduates take them to gain professional licenses. They are akin to using a calculator to solve an equation. Do you really want a doctor who passed his boards as a result of taking speed — and continues to depend on that for his practice?
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There is an ancient precedent to humans using natural compounds to elevate cognitive performance. Incan warriors in the 15th century would ingest coca leaves (the basis for cocaine) before battle. Ethiopian hunters in the 10th century developed coffee bean paste to improve hunting stamina. Modern athletes ubiquitously consume protein powders and hormones to enhance their training, recovery, and performance. The most widely consumed psychoactive compound today is caffeine. Millions of people use coffee and tea to be more alert and focused.
The research literature, while copious, is messy and varied: methodologies and devices vary substantially, sample sizes are tiny, the study designs vary from paper to paper, metrics are sometimes comically limited (one study measured speed of finishing a RAPM IQ test but not scores), blinding is rare and unclear how successful, etc. Relevant papers include Chung et al 2012, Rojas & Gonzalez-Lima 2013, & Gonzalez-Lima & Barrett 2014. Another Longecity user ran a self-experiment, with some design advice from me, where he performed a few cognitive tests over several periods of LLLT usage (the blocks turned out to be ABBA), using his father and towels to try to blind himself as to condition. I analyzed his data, and his scores did seem to improve, but his scores improved so much in the last part of the self-experiment I found myself dubious as to what was going on - possibly a failure of randomness given too few blocks and an temporal exogenous factor in the last quarter which was responsible for the improvement.
Learning how products have worked for other users can help you feel more confident in your purchase. Similarly, your opinion may help others find a good quality supplement. After you have started using a particular supplement and experienced the benefits of nootropics for memory, concentration, and focus, we encourage you to come back and write your own review to share your experience with others.
Power times prior times benefit minus cost of experimentation: (0.20 \times 0.30 \times 540) - 41 = -9. So the VoI is negative: because my default is that fish oil works and I am taking it, weak information that it doesn’t work isn’t enough. If the power calculation were giving us 40% reliable information, then the chance of learning I should drop fish oil is improved enough to make the experiment worthwhile (going from 20% to 40% switches the value from -$9 to +$23.8).
Gibson and Green (2002), talking about a possible link between glucose and cognition, wrote that research in the area …is based on the assumption that, since glucose is the major source of fuel for the brain, alterations in plasma levels of glucose will result in alterations in brain levels of glucose, and thus neuronal function. However, the strength of this notion lies in its common-sense plausibility, not in scientific evidence… (p. 185).
Amphetamine – systematic reviews and meta-analyses report that low-dose amphetamine improved cognitive functions (e.g., inhibitory control, episodic memory, working memory, and aspects of attention) in healthy people and in individuals with ADHD. A 2014 systematic review noted that low doses of amphetamine also improved memory consolidation, in turn leading to improved recall of information in non-ADHD youth. It also improves task saliency (motivation to perform a task) and performance on tedious tasks that required a high degree of effort.